Medicine Scarce for Avian Flu Virus

This week, the United Nations created the position of czar in the global fight against a possible avian influenza pandemic. Meanwhile, officials here in the United States acknowledged the country is unprepared if this never-before-seen strain of flu, known to scientists as H5N1, were to hit this winter.  

"H number 5 and N number 1, to our knowledge, has never in history been in our species," explained Laurie Garrett, a senior fellow on global health policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. "So absolutely nobody watching this has any natural immunity to this form of flu."  

The draft report of the federal government's emergency plan, which was obtained by ABC News, estimates that more than 200,000 people would die in the first six months after the virus struck, the amount of time it would take for a vaccine to be available.  

"It's something that keeps the president of the United States awake. It keeps me awake," said Michael Leavitt, secretary of Health and Human Services, who is in charge of making sure Americans are prepared in the event of a flu epidemic.  

When asked if the country would be prepared if an avian flu epidemic hit today, Leavitt admitted, "Not as prepared as we need to be."  

Officials tell ABC News that if the flu were to strike, parts of major cities would have to be quarantined, and stadiums would serve as makeshift hospitals. There would likely be a shortage of Tamiflu, the only medicine that so far seems effective in treating flu victims in Asia.  

Tamiflu is made by Roche Pharmaceuticals in a plant in Switzerland, which has limited production capabilities. Officials say the United States was slow to stockpile the drug.  Currently, the stockpile stands at 2 million doses, which is barely enough for emergency workers and the military.  

"Do we wish we had ordered it sooner and more of it? I suspect one could say yes," said Leavitt.   

As to why that was not the case, Leavitt replied, "I can't answer that. I don't know the answer."  

The Roche company said this month's delivery of Tamiflu to U.S. pharmacies sold out in just a few days.  A company spokesman told ABC News that so far the company has been able to meet demand for Tamiflu prescriptions at U.S. pharmacies.

  ABC News' Maddy Sauer, Jill Rackmill and Samantha Chapman contributed to this report.      

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